By Amber Veverka
Patience. Time. And a whole lot of mealworms. That’s what you need to train wild Eastern bluebirds to eat from your hand, Charlotte-area bird experts say.
And they’re not the only songbird brave enough to take a meal from your fingertips: Chickadees and wrens are plucky creatures that don’t get scared by much, and in time they will feed right next to people.
But it’s bluebirds that many of Carol Buie-Jackson’s customers are most interested in.
“There’s like this whole cult of people around bluebirds. They buy mealworms, the larvae of the darkling beetle,” said Buie-Jackson, who with her husband, Jay, runs Bird House on the Greenway, a birding-supply shop in Charlotte. “If you go out at the same time every day, at least at the beginning, and ring a bell or whistle or click a spoon on a bowl, bluebirds will come to associate that sound with mealworms. Bluebirds are highly trainable. You do that every day and in a week, you can have them trained to come when you call.”
After that, you can position yourself 12 to 15 feet from the food dish and keep inching closer over time, Buie-Jackson said. Eventually, birds should be comfortable enough to flutter down and take food from your hand or a container you hold. “One of my customers has pictures of her and her grandchild feeding them by hand,” Buie-Jackson said.
Perhaps the best-known Charlotteans to hand-feed wild birds were the late Edwin and Elizabeth Clarkson, founders of Wing Haven Gardens. When Elizabeth moved to Charlotte in 1927, she set about transforming her bare, red-clay Myers Park yard into a garden, and when a lengthy illness forced her to spend a lot of time sitting quietly, she was awakened to the world of birds. From that point on, the Clarksons rarely ventured outside without some treat for their feathered companions, says Dia Steiger, Wing Haven executive director.
“At dinner parties, they’d place hummingbird feeders on the backs of their chairs,” Steiger said. She pointed out that Elizabeth placed all her bird feeders near the house, so the birds would become accustomed to the presence of people. Steiger said that when she first started at her job, a Wing Haven hostess was able to draw birds by placing worms in a feeder and waiting quietly nearby.
“Eventually they would become comfortable enough to eat from the ground by her feet and, then with perseverance, they’d come to a can of worms in her hand,” Steiger said. In the South, birds may be most likely to accept food by hand when they’re ravenous, like at nesting season. Up north, they’re braver when food choices are limited by heavy snowfall.
“If you’re patient,” said Buie-Jackson, “you can do it.”